Beginning with the Big East game against South Florida (5-1 overall, 1-1) Saturday at noon at Heinz Field, Pittsburgh (6-1, 3-0) likely needs one more win to secure a bowl bid and certainly must finish strong to win the Conference for the first time since the 2004 season when there was a three-way tie.
The Panthers also face Syracuse Nov. 7 at Heinz Field and Notre Dame Nov. 14 at home, are at West Virginia Nov. 27 and play host to Cincinnati, ranked fifth nationally in the Associated Press and BCS polls, Dec. 5 at Heinz Field in the regular-season finale. That game could determine the Big East champion.
"That's a tough stretch of games,'' Pitt fifth-year senior quarterback Bill Stull said, "but we're getting better every week, learning from our mistakes and making improvements. And we're getting better every week.
"So, we should be ready to take our game to another level again this week. We've done it all season, as the competition continually improved as well. We just have to keep working hard and pushing ourselves to improve.''
Pitt's competition has improved markedly since the season began against Youngstown State, and USF certainly will be the Panthers' toughest opponent to date. So, improving to 7-1 won't be an easy task, but if accomplished it will be the first time the program reached that mark since 1982 when quarterback Dan Marino led the way.
"You want to accomplish something that has never been done or something that hasn't been done in a long time,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "So, I think those things are all healthy things to talk about. Last week, with our seniors not having beaten Rutgers, we didn't put our heads down.
"Our guys took it the other way. We're going to get this done. We're going to find a way to beat these guys before we leave here. I think those past facts are facts, but I think it's all how you approach it. That was great motivation for us last week. Did we need it? I don't know. It sure as heck didn't hurt.
"You're always looking for extra carrots out there to chase and to go after,'' Wannstedt added. "So, that's all part of the experience of trying to accomplish things that haven't been done in a while. (And) this is just another one of those things that we can accomplish this season.''
Wannstedt also pointed out that the Panthers had not beaten Louisville on the road since 1983, but won there this year by a 35-10 margin. Pitt also lost to Connecticut in a blowout at home two years ago, but won this year, 24-21, on a field goal on the last play. Then, there's Rutgers, which Wannstedt never beat until knocking off the Scarlet Knights 24-17 this past Friday night.
Pitt is 3-3 overall against South Florida, while Wannstedt is 2-2 against the Bulls. The Panthers have knocked off arch-rival West Virginia the past two seasons, but lost to Cincinnati in basically what turned out to be the Big East title game last fall. So, those so-called carrots are still out there.
"The early games absolutely have prepared us for where we're headed right now,'' Pitt sixth-year senior middle linebacker Adam Gunn said. "From here on out, every game is important and possibly season-changing for us. So, we need to look at the other games as learning experiences, and that's exactly what we've done. And we're moving on to the South Florida game.
"I believe we've grown as a team through every game this season, and we're well-prepared for this final stretch. Our penalties, for example, have decreased since the early games this season. We only had two against UConn and five in the last game. That just shows that we're a better team now. (And) I think we're improving, as a team and as individuals, so we have to be better.''
Stull just believed that the Panthers have matured overall this season.
"When we had more younger players, we might have looked too far ahead to this final stretch of games,'' Stull said. "But we're a veteran team, for the most part, and we're prepared to take things one game at a time. I've been around teams that didn't finish strong, and we don't want that to happen this year. We'll make sure we stay focused.''
Junior safety Dom DeCicco knows that the Pitt secondary, including himself, has had its share of ups and downs this season. But facing that adversity and eventually overcoming it every time, other than against North Carolina State, has toughened the Panthers for the homestretch.
"We had a stretch like this last year, a bunch of tough games, and except for Cincinnati on the road, we were pretty successful last year,'' DeCicco said. "So, that prepared us for this one, I think, as well as our opening games this season.
"As a defense, it's been kind of hectic and tough to get a comfort zone with the injuries and all the different guys substituting in. But we're getting there, a lot more comfortable, and I think you can see that on the field. We're playing much better in the secondary than we did earlier this season.''
Wannstedt noted that while rankings won't ever be discussed in team meetings or on the practice field at Pitt, the Panthers are thrilled that the Big East is so well-represented in the national polls this week. Cincinnati is fifth in the inaugural BCS and The Associated Press writers' poll, as well as sixth in the USA Today coaches' ranking.
Pitt is ranked 19th by the coaches and 20th in both the AP and BCS polls, while West Virginia is rated 22nd by the coaches and writers and is 23rd in the BCS poll this week.
"It's great exposure for the Conference, there's no question about that,'' Wannstedt said, "and that's what we're looking for. We obviously, when it's all said and done, you'd like the Big East to have as many teams in the (final) rankings as we possibly can.
"And you'd like to see somebody playing for the national championship. So, that just strengthens the reputation of our Conference. ... And if Cincinnati goes undefeated, I think they'll be playing for the national championship. And deservedly so, as far as I'm concerned.''
And with the final stretch of games for Pitt this season, the Panthers have a chance to move a long way up in the rankings.
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